Booths, Tabernacles, Tents and Huts: Naming the Sukkah

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 16, 2008, issue of October 24, 2008.
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The eight-day holiday of Sukkot that began on the evening of Monday, October 13, is known in English — quaintly, to our ears — as the “Feast of Booths” or the “Feast of Tabernacles.” It’s no wonder that we prefer to say (stressing the second syllable) “Sukkot” — or, pronouncing the word in its Eastern European fashion, “Sukkes” (stressing the first syllable). A sukkah, the biblical word for a harvester’s temporary shelter, a makeshift structure roofed with branches to keep out the sun, is not what either “booth” or “tabernacle” suggests to us. When we think of the former, we picture a ticket or telephone booth, or else a compartment at a circus or fair in which midgets do headstands or tarot cards are read. When we think of a tabernacle, on the other hand, we may imagine a grand religious edifice, like the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. And that’s to say nothing of “Feast,” which evokes for us a single lavish meal, not a weeklong celebration.

For an Englishman living in the early 17th century, when the King James Version of the Bible was published, none of this would have been a problem. In the King James we find the following verses from the book of Leviticus (23:34,41): “The fifteenth day of the seventh month shall be the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the Lord…. Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths.”

The King James was closely following William Tyndale’s 1530 Bible, which speaks of “tabernacles” and “booths,” too. Tyndale, in turn, was working with the Hebrew and Latin Bibles. The Hebrew has sukkot in Leviticus 23:34 and Leviticus 23:41. The Latin varies the term. In Leviticus 23:34, it speaks of feriae tabernaculorum, while in Leviticus 23: 41 it says habitabitis in umbraculis. Tyndale went along with that.

A taberna in ancient Rome was a cottage, shop, inn or pub. (From the last of these meanings comes our English “tavern.”) Its diminutive form of tabernaculum (of which tabernaculorum is the genitive plural) meant a hut or, more often, a tent. Used more specifically, it referred to a tent erected in the Campus Martius or “Field of Mars,” the military drill grounds of ancient Rome, in which a priestly augur secluded himself prior to the convening of the comitia, the popular assembly of the Roman Republic. And because tabernaculum thus had a sacral connotation, it was also used by the Latin Bible to translate the Hebrew term ohel mo’ed, or “tent of convocation,” which served the Israelites as a portable religious shrine during their years of wandering in the desert.

How, then, did “tabernacle” also come to mean a monumental structure like that of the Mormons, which would occupy almost an entire football field? The answer is that in the late 18th and 19th centuries, “tabernacle” was adopted by various English dissenting sects, particularly the Congregationalists, to denote their churches, which were indeed small, simple buildings. And since the Mormons were America’s version of England’s dissenters, the one Christian church in the United States ever to have been persecuted by the political and religious establishment, it was natural for them to call the huge prayer hall they constructed in Salt Lake City in 1864 a “tabernacle,” too. This subsequently influenced the use of the word in American English, in which a tabernacle can now be big and ornate.

As for habetabitis (you shall live in) umbraculis, the Latin word umbraculum is also a diminutive, formed from umbra, shade or a shady place. (Think of an umbrella, which was originally designed to protect its holder against sun rather than rain.) In classical Latin an umbraculum is a parasol, but in the fourth-century C.E. Latin of Jerome’s Bible it means a tent or temporary shelter. Tyndale’s choice of “booth” and of the Hebrew sukkah was an excellent one, because a booth in his day was just that: a shelter against the sun roofed with green tree branches, a meaning that the word kept well into the 19th century.

And yet by Tyndale’s day, a booth had also come to mean a covered stall in a market or fair, one whose roof was made of canvas or boards rather than of branches. Eventually, this meaning crowded out the one used by Tyndale and the King James Version, which gradually became archaic.

As for “feast,” it, too, has lost the meaning that it has in the Tyndale and King James Bibles, in which it signifies a holiday, like Latin festum, Spanish fiesta and French fête, rather than the banquet or lavish meal that it does for us. Feasts once lasted for days; nowadays, they are over in hours, barring the indigestion that can follow them. Rather than speak of a feast that isn’t a feast, tabernacles that aren’t tabernacles and booths that aren’t booths, it is indeed more sensible to say Sukkot.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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